“What’s your sign?” does not belong on an intake form

19 09 2011

I haven’t made much of an effort to hide my atheism. (Here, I mean. Christmas dinner is another story, because it’s just not worth it.) Most of my clients identify themselves as having some kind of religious beliefs, and, of course, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m often happy when my families are actively involved in church, because it can be a great support system. One mother’s congregation helped to pay off her back rent, which was something I certainly couldn’t do for her.

I’m not religious, but I get religion. I grew up rather religious, and identified as Catholic until only a few years ago. So that’s something I can understand. Even when I can’t understand a client’s beliefs, it doesn’t really matter. As long as it works for them.


I guess. But sometimes…things get weird.

The rare, mythical, coworker/friend of mine worked with a really nice family a while back. Mom, dad, and adorable five year old daughter. I got to know them at our Christmas party, where I colored approximately 758 snowmen pictures with the child. I almost envied my friend for working with them.

Then, in group supervision, I learned a bit more. (She only used first names though, so with that flawless attention to anonymity, I really can’t be certain which family it was. Ha.)

Apparently the parents had some pretty serious flaws in their marriage, and this was affecting their ability to parent their child. There was a history of infidelity, the father was not involved aside from being a physical presence, and there had been some pretty serious fights in front of their daughter. The mother recognized that these were problems, and wanted things to change.

The issue was that she thought God would change her husband.

No, seriously.

I don’t mean, “We’re praying about this for guidance” or even, “My religious beliefs tell me this is OK.” Straight up, “There’s nothing I can do aside from wait for divine intervention.”

Meanwhile the child is being exposed to an unhealthy relationship, and mom and dad are being driven further and further apart.

My friend was somewhat religious, but much more of the “God helps those who help themselves” variety. She found herself at a real standstill with this woman. If you’re waiting and waiting for someone to be changed by an outside force, what else is there to be done? Just put in that time on the queue, and surely you’ll be rewarded. Or something. We’ll see.

I was glad that I didn’t have to cope with that particular family. But I have had some belief systems that have thrown me for a loop. The most frequent one I get is, “SJ, my daughter and I just aren’t going to get along. She’s a Libra, I’m a Capricorn.” “He’s a Gemini. What am I supposed to do?”

This is a constant refrain. There’s only so much they can do, as their signs really conflict.

Parents, before you make the decision to start trying for that little bundle of joy, please consider your zodiac signs and plan conception accordingly. Otherwise we’ll have anarchy on our hands.

Zodiac signs are extraordinarily silly to me, but if my clients (and Twitter feed) are any indication, plenty of people take them very seriously. As a social worker, I’m starting where the client is.

 This puts a disbeliever such as myself in the awkward position of taking their belief seriously and acknowledging their concerns, while not letting something like the month their kid was born in prevent them from having a positive relationship.

But how do we get past that? A belief is so unchanging. “I am this, you are this.” There’s no in between. Acknowledging that a bit of that might be erroneous–maybe I can get along with my Aries mother-in-law, perhaps Jesus won’t change my husband and I’ll have to leave him–can mean letting go of something much bigger.

Early on, I worked with a mother who had been through the tragic, heartbreaking situation of giving birth to a premature daughter who only lived to be six weeks old. This happened about four years before we started working together, and the mother was still very much grieving this loss. Sadly, her mental health and substance abuse issues were exacerbated by her child’s death, and I was working with her on being able to care for her four older children.

I understood that. It was very real.

One day, she told me that she had seen her youngest daughter over the weekend. As she told me, her child who had passed away, “came to visit.” She knew it was this child, because she was wearing a white dress and was four years old, the age her child would have been if she had survived. My client saw her daughter walk through the kitchen, say hello, and disappear.

My first concern was, given this woman’s history, that she was hallucinating again. (As far as how to tell the difference, I’ve never gotten a particularly clear answer.)  The thought that this was a real experience didn’t enter my mind. It’s not my frame of reference; it’s not how my mind works.

However, it was how this woman’s mind worked. She sincerely believed that this was her daughter coming to visit. Something that would scare the shit out of me was something of a comfort to her. Even though I didn’t, and still don’t, understand it, I can work with it.

There are times, though, when it can’t be worked with or around. If your child is at risk because of your beliefs, something has to change. Religion seems to be the ultimate topic we can’t question–I mean, that’s against her religion. But when it’s a part of our client’s lives, and is impacting them, positively or negatively (especially negatively) it needs to be addressed somehow.

That’s one of many things I’m still figuring out.

Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.

“Have a blessed day.” “Maybe we could just shake on it.”

24 01 2011

I was raised Catholic. went through periods of time when I was angry with the Church, and wouldn’t go for a while, but I always found my way back.

It’s been a few years since that. I’m now pretty comfortable identifying as an atheist.

I try not to be an asshole about it. Let’s face it, a lot of people are. I hate constantly having to hear about how sunshine is actually the smile of Jesus upon us, but it’s equally annoying to have to listen to a diatribe about how the Pledge of Allegiance didn’t include “under God” until 1954 and our nation is being brainwashed.

Um, that’s nice, SocialJerk, but what does this have to do with social work?

Thank you for keeping me on topic.

Religion comes up a lot. It’s what The View would call a hot topic. Sometimes, it comes up more often than I think it should.

We always want to start where the client is. We want to work with what’s important to them, identify their natural support systems, and help them to help themselves.

For some people, religion is a big part of this. I worked with one woman whose church prevented her from being evicted by loaning her the money to pay off her rental arrears. Her son made a lot of friends in Sunday School after moving from Ghana. It gave them a community.

So we used that, as much as we could. I felt much better closing her case and stepping out of her children’s lives knowing that her religious community was there.

My director loved this. Because he loves him some Jesus.

There are bibles, theology books, crosses, and bible quotes decorating his office. It makes me a little uncomfortable, because it seems kind of strange for a secular agency. I know that it would throw me off  if I went there for counseling.

But I don’t say anything, because 1.) He signs my paychecks and 2.) I try not to be an asshole.

My director isn’t all that uncommon. People go into this field to help people. A lot of people are inspired by their religion to help. It’s what got me into a lot of volunteering and assorted other do-gooder-ness (that is definitely a word) when I was younger.

But when it comes to being where our clients are, we have to check it at the door. For reasons of self-determination, and not losing that sweet sweet city funding. Your journey to accepting the Lord was beautiful, I’m sure, but how is that helping this woman to enroll in a GED program?

I usually try to hold my tongue. Recently, at our staff holiday party (note my position in the “War on Christmas”) I felt like things went a little too far. I was told that we were waiting to serve the food until our director came in to lead us in prayer and a blessing.

I’m sorry, am I back at Girl Scout camp?

I had to register my discomfort. A couple of my workers looked mystified. Why would anyone object to a nice Christian prayer before a meal?

Why indeed. Once I said something, another person mumbled that, he “doesn’t do that,” and a sane Christian colleague informed them that a lot of people don’t pray, so if you want to, why not just do it to yourself?

I was looked at like the Grinch Who Stole Baby Jesus’ Birthday Party, but we were able to move on.

As happens so often, My So-Called Life accurately sums up my feelings on the matter. Angela Chase once questioned cheerleaders, saying, “Can’t people just like, cheer quietly? To themselves?”

During group supervision, it became an issue again.

A coworker was sharing a particularly tricky case. We were all throwing out possibilities for helping this family. Finally, Helpy McGee piped in with, “Just tell her to go to church!”

Being an expert passable social worker, I tried to reframe this.

“You mean, ask if she goes to church? If she can get some support there?”
“Yeah, and if she doesn’t go tell her to go. They’ll do a lot for them there.”

Holy government funding, Batman!

“Or you could tell her to become a lesbian. The LGBT community is so supportive!”

Even if this wasn’t against agency policy, and even if I didn’t find proselytizing to be distasteful, it’s bad social work practice. Nothing would make me run for the hills more than a suggestion that I “just go to church.” I don’t know if a worker who suggested that could ever do anything to make me feel that they understood me.

What works for you does not necessarily work for me. I am a social worker because I believe that people have a responsibility to care for one another, and that our government has a responsibility to its people. I believe in human dignity, and that no one (except maybe the cast of the Jersey Shore) is beyond help.

God doesn’t factor in for me. And I’m fine with that.

I hope that my colleagues are as well.